Why IT reforms have failed to make much difference

Mark Forman is co-founder of Government Transaction Services, a cloud computing services company, and was the first administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget. Paul Brubaker is president of Silver Lining and former deputy CIO at the Defense Department.

During the past 16 years, IT reform efforts, from the Clinger-Cohen Act to the E-Government Act and the Obama administration’s 25-point plan, have focused on government’s inability to keep up with the pace of technology.

Despite those efforts, government remains largely incapable of gaining performance breakthroughs in line with technology innovation. Now, in an era of two major IT disruptions — mobility and cloud — we believe it is time to refocus IT reforms.

Most 21st-century IT reforms have been limited to technology, such as cloud computing, website consolidation, data center consolidation and commodity technology consolidation. Although we agree that the administration can cut IT costs by consolidating applications and infrastructure, we also know that these savings pale in comparison to the potential gains that could come from using technology to transform the way government operates.

Each major wave of technology improves productivity via new business and service delivery approaches. These approaches also result in infrastructure consolidation, but it comes as a result of better ways of doing business that directly support mission execution and with benefits that far exceed today’s data center consolidation results. So if we citizens are to get the true benefits of technology, there must be new government IT reforms that focus on three core areas.

First, there must be clear authority, responsibility and accountability for whoever is charged with transforming an enterprise. The current trend appears to be de-emphasizing the strategic transformational function of CIOs in favor of a technology management focus. That leaves no one to harvest technology opportunities that could revolutionize government service delivery. We need legislation to clarify who is responsible, what their authorities are and how they are held accountable for government productivity gains.

Second, there must be clear goals for productivity gains. The shift from focusing on an agency mission to adopting technology for technology’s sake is becoming increasingly obvious. That trend surfaces in the rush to find savings from commodity technology and the self-congratulatory rhetoric from some who have rushed to build apps for smart devices or create a social media presence that, in almost all cases, produces little in terms of improved mission outcomes and often promotes an already dysfunctional application.

Finally, there needs to be a viable, transparent common framework for creating new government operating processes — from how government serves people to the modernization of acquisition and financial transactions. We know that re-engineering is risky, thankless and hard. It requires deftly navigating functional and cultural obstacles to change and creating communications strategies to build support from all levels and stakeholders. Successful transformation efforts require resources, continuity and support from top management. Because many cross-agency opportunities are emerging, the transformation framework must incorporate the Office of Management and Budget and agency roles into a simple governance model that can integrate with the budget.

Seeking to shave a few hundred million from the IT operating budgets through consolidating commodity IT and data centers is good. But we believe it is not acceptable to spend money to continue to poorly serve taxpayers by maintaining antiquated processes and dysfunctional systems running on fewer servers.

It’s time for IT reform that refocuses political leaders, OMB and CIOs on using technology to measurably improve agencies’ missions.

About the Authors

Paul Brubaker is AirWatch by VMWare's director for U.S. federal government.

Mark Forman is an accomplished Executive with more than 29 years of government management reform experience, including a Presidential appointment to be the first U.S. Administrator for E-Government and Information Technology, the Federal Government’s Chief Information Officer. Mr. Forman is currently the CEO of Government Transaction Services, Inc. which was established in 2010 to be the leading provider of cloud-based business process and transaction services supporting organizations that do business with the federal government. Government Transaction Services’ products reduce administrative burdens and simplify interactions with government, as well provide on-line practitioner communities.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 5, 2012 Mark Kenny Hippo Solutions

I agree that it is a people problem. Reforming IT requires changing how people think and how teams work, as much as the technology itself.

Sat, Jun 9, 2012 Joan D. Winston Arlington VA

Mark and Paul, I am glad you are still fighting the good fight. As you well know, it is a people problem more than a technology one. The enemy is (in good part) us, to paraphrase Pogo. .

Sat, May 26, 2012 Douglas Brown Alexandria VA

The last summary sentence explains why the authors, right in principle, have it wrong in the prescription. The point is not to use IT to measurably improve the mission. That is impossible if the mission itself is misguided. The point is to measure mission accomplishment AT ALL, which very few agencies are even trying to do after 20-plus years of talking about it. Then you can use IT to enhance either aspect of that - measurement or mission accomplishment. Government cannot become more efficient or more effective if all we are going to do is tinker around the edges and seek efficiencies in IT operations instead of addressing the enormous costs and consistent failures of the mission programs themselves. Once those are reined in, there will be a lot more interest in how IT can help the business become more efficient and effective.

Mon, May 21, 2012

The problem with government reforms, as has been shown historically around the world, is that they are put together by mostly politicians and others with little real world experience. The more you apply government to a real, business-world problem, the worse the problem gets. The real problem is that most people in the government are ignorant of the real world or just plain arrogant to the point that they think they should be running everything and, in reality, the opposite is usually true. Minimize the role of government and things will usually straighten themselves out quite nicely on their own - except for those ignorant few who naturally have to screw up most of what they touch.

Mon, May 21, 2012 JBredell

Well stated! IT earned its first round of success in many cases by simply electrifying the existing paper-based workflows. The next round will require us to redirect those workflows to make the best use of technology. Our next technological challenge will be consolidation of legacy data into new systems. Our bigger challenge is operational: getting end-user involvement in new workflow design end-user endorsement for the changes. It's going to be exciting!

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